Hawks’ Cam Reddish is here to tell you the NBA is no breeze

The Hawks Cam Reddish, right, applies a little defense to Brooklyn's Joe Harris. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

Credit: Emilee Chinn

Credit: Emilee Chinn

The Hawks Cam Reddish, right, applies a little defense to Brooklyn's Joe Harris. (Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

If Cam Reddish has discovered nothing else in his first three months as a pro, it’s that this NBA thing no joke. It’s more difficult, certainly, than when you’re playing it from the comfort of your couch, game controller in hand. And more so than any hotshot teenager watching each night’s highlight package can ever imagine.

The man who drafted him, Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, has heard Reddish’s confession. “That’s what he told me: They make it look easier on TV,” Schlenk said.

“It’s just tough to win,” Reddish said this week, when asked what has been the biggest disconnect between what he thought he knew about life in the NBA and what he has come to learn.

“You got to play to the very, very, very end. That’s just how good teams and players are in the NBA. It’s a learning experience. It’s just tougher to win in the NBA than anything else.

“And guys are so good they make it look easy.”

Little has looked easy for Reddish on his first lap around the league. Yes, winning is hard, and the Hawks, 8-30 entering the weekend, are Exhibit A to that. And Reddish himself has encountered his own trials, especially when he has an open look from 3 and the rim has become the size of a bottle cap.

Reddish’s 2019-20 NBA campaign has transitioned to the other side of the hyphen, where a player as green as he might actually begin stumbling into moments of clarity.

Wasn’t it roughly this time last year when the pro game started to make sense to another high-profile Hawks rookie? This was about the stage when Trae Young took off the training wheels, leaving behind a quite wobbly beginning. And he has only gained in speed and confidence since, and now often rides without even using the handlebars.

But not all these oh-very-young professionals keep the same schedule. For Reddish – who, with Young, is the answer to the eternal trivia question, “Who did the Hawks receive in exchange for future MVP Luka Doncic – remains an enigma in short pants. Where he fits in the grand Hawks scheme is scarcely clearer now than the moment the team took him with the supplementary first-round pick it got in the Doncic deal. His ceiling is undefined. His floor, however, is right there for all to see on the stat sheet: 31.7% field-goal percentage; 25.8% from 3. If there was a Mendoza Line in basketball, all but about an inch of the 6-foot-9 Reddish would be below it.

It’s his ability to put ball in the basket, kind of a professional requisite, that is most at issue still.

This Reddish said, barely above a whisper, as is his accustomed volume: “I believe I’m a phenomenal shooter, and I will be that.”

But this is all we know to date: “He’s still shooting very low percentages offensively,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “We’ve seen bursts and moments where you get excited about what he’s doing offensively, but the percentages haven’t drastically changed. We’ll still ride the roller coaster.

“I know he’ll have some good games. The key is keeping him on the court, keeping him attacking, keeping him looking for those shots.”

His first three games of January have hardly been indicative of a turning point: 6-of-22 from the field (27.3%) and 3-of-13 from 3 (23.1%). His best moment as a pro – scoring 25 against Brooklyn, along with six rebounds, three steals and a block – came more than a month ago.

“It’s all in my head,” said Reddish, sounding a little like a golfer with the yips. For now, the only course of treatment is to keep shooting.

At 20, Reddish is the youngest Hawk, which is saying something on a team that is barely more aged than moonshine. Taken with the 10th pick in the draft – acquired with Dallas’ pick as part of dealing Doncic last year – he figures to be important in the remaking of this team. A player of his size and deftness potentially fills a number of roles. Thus it is too soon in such a player’s career for the Hawks to show him anything but patience.

“I told him that Paul George, as an example, shot 29 percent from 3 as a rookie,” Schlenk said. “It takes a while. Not every rookie comes in like Trae and at the end of (his first season) you think, OK, he’s set. It takes guys time. He’s only played one year in college, not like (other Hawks rookie) De’Andre Hunter who played three years at Virginia.”

Those within the Hawks’ inner circle see Reddish calmly navigating these new valleys. No panic yet. “Cam’s a pretty level-headed dude,” teammate John Collins said. “He doesn’t get too up or too down, which I kind of like about him. He’s going through a lot, coming in as a rook, having to learn a whole new way of playing. You have to give him time to develop a little bit.”

Remember that he came in behind schedule, offseason groin surgery taking him out of the Summer League indoctrination and slowing him at the start of training camp. The signs of getting back up to speed now are subtle. “I’m becoming a lot more confident, a lot more comfortable on the floor. The game is slowing down a tad bit for me,” he said.

Yeah, this NBA thing is hard. Reddish was the third Duke player drafted among the first 10 picks of 2019. Picked at the top, the injured Zion Williamson is still waiting to make his regular-season debut. RJ Barrett is taking his lumps with the New York Knicks, scoring more than Reddish – 13.8 points per game compared with 8.0 ppg – but losing about as much.

“It’s tough to pay attention to anyone, honestly,” Reddish said when asked how much he’s watching his fellow Dukies. “We’re always on the road, focusing on our team. You kind of don’t think about the Knicks or the Pelicans. We stay in touch, we talk all the time still. We just don’t talk about basketball because everyone else does.”

For now, the reviews of Reddish center on his defensive presence, not exactly the sexiest attribute. It won’t generate headlines or highlights, but at least it helps carry a guy when his shot isn’t cooperating.

Reddish never looked at himself as a force on defense coming up because he didn’t really have to. He was just naturally bigger and better than everyone else. But as the competition improved, he began applying a little more focus to that end of the court.

“I take a ton of pride in (playing defense),” Reddish said. “It’s another way to get going if the offense isn’t going. Obviously, it’s fun once you get good at it.”

“I think Cam is a game-changer defensively,” Pierce said. “He can make plays with his length, he can guard smaller guys, he can contest shots and alter shots.

“I think Cam has been growing as a defender,” the coach said, accentuating the positive. “He’s gotten better being physical, getting into bodies, getting over screens, in the passing lane making plays.”

Now, as for that offense ...

“I’ve always been able to shoot since I can remember,” Reddish said. “It’s never been a problem for me. I’m just trying to get it together. I’ll be fine.

“I know I can do it. It’s a matter of doing it now.”

That will not be as easy as it sounds.